Hockey’s Future spoke recently with Rockford Ice Hogs Head Coach Mike Haviland. Coach Haviland has been leading the Chicago Blackhawks AHL franchises, first at Norfolk and now at Rockford, since 2005. He won the Pieri Award in 2006-07, given to the top coach in the AHL. A native of Middletown, NJ, he is a graduate of Elmira College.
HF: What’s the difference -— in terms of playing style, experience, etc. -— between this year’s inaugural Rockford club and last year’s team at Norfolk?
MH: We’re a lot younger this year. We have a lot of first and second-year guys. We have one real veteran this year, where last year we had five. The overall skill level is very similar. The speed’s better. The goaltending is better with Wade Flaherty now along with Corey Crawford. It’s a similar club, but younger. It’s going to be very exciting to see this team in January and February when they really start picking up the pro game.
HF: Players like Dave Bolland, Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer worked out in Madison with Hawks skating coach Dan Jansen this past off-season. Have you noticed a lot of difference in these players’ mobility, and can you comment on the players’ overall fitness level coming into Rockford this year?
MH: I’ve been with this organization for three years, and every year I’m amazed at the conditioning of some of these kids. Look at Adam Burish, who’s been our best-conditioned player the last two years, and what he’s able to do now at the NHL level. We had (Duncan) Keith here and his conditioning has been talked about by a lot of people. Bolland and Byfuglien have improved because of it. But not just them. Colin Fraser and (Michael) Blunden have both picked up a half step since last year.
HF: What are your different line combinations and can you describe the lines’ different roles (scoring, defense, checking)?
MH: I like to do pairs. We don’t want all the scoring on one line. We really had two scoring lines early on. But that really wasn’t working because then all the other team had to do was focus on stopping those two lines. So now we’re working on having three lines that can score. I’ve got Evan Brophey with Jack Skille and Chris Versteeg. Martin St. Pierre with Fraser and Blunden. And Petri Kontiola, Jake Dowell and Brouwer together. And Bryan Bickell and Adam Berti are the other two. Which is really too bad because we can’t have four lines here. They’re very good players.
HF: What’s been your impression of the rookies coming in this year, specifically Kontiola, Brophey and Niklas Hjalmarsson?
MH: Kontiola is extremely skilled. He’s older than some of the other players because he played in the Finnish Elite League the last couple of seasons. He has great vision. If you play with him, you’d better be ready and have your blade on the ice; because if you’re not, you’re going to miss some scoring chances. He’s adjusting to the North American game where there’s a little more clutch and grab and we have much smaller ice surface. Not to say anything bad about European players, but he’s unusual in that he has no fear going into the corners and he works hard.
Brophey . . . we’d heard he was skilled, but you don’t really know until you get these kids in and see what they can do. And he’s gone beyond what we expected. He’s big, he’s fast and very skilled. Surprisingly skilled. And he’ll go in the corners, too. He’s a very big, strong kid and he uses his size well.
I’ll tell you, Hjalmarsson is going to be very popular when he gets to Chicago. He can make the first pass, he can skate and plays responsibly. But he just flattens people. Like Kontiola, he has to adjust to the smaller ice sheet here in North America, but what really jumps out at you right now are his open ice hits.
HF: But he’s not that big at this point.
MH: No, but he has a fire inside. He so competitive and plays with such intensity. I mean, a couple of times this year, he’s hit people and we all just look at each other on the bench and shake our heads. They’re going to love him when he gets to Chicago.
HF: How is Jack Skille doing? Is he trying to work on any specific aspects of his game to prepare for the next level and what kind of progress is he making?
MH: ‘Skills’ has made tremendous progress. He’s a true power forward. I had him at the end of last year and now this year. He has unbelievable speed and he’s great coming down the wing. He’s a big strong kid and he’s going to get bigger and stronger. He just needs to bring it every night. That’s what we’re working with him on. He needs to finish his checks, work hard on the forecheck and create turnovers, play the power forward game.
HF: Same question as above about Cam Barker.
MH: Barks has basically been outstanding. He’s kind of figured it out now. We’ve been pressing him to play hard. Make that first pass hard. Hit hard. Skate hard. He has a natural tendency to want to slow the game down, which great players have, and that’s a good thing. But he needs to balance that with using his strength and playing hard when the situation calls for it.
HF: Seemed like when he was up with the Hawks last year, toward the end of the season, he started playing very physically and his game went to another level.
MH: That’s exactly it. He and Byfuglien have been our best defensemen, but Buff is up with the Hawks now. And we’ve been talking to Cam about what he needs to do to get there. And he knows it. He’s made a few really big open-ice hits recently. He’s really finally got it figured it out.
HF: Seems like Troy Brouwer’s picked it up a bit recently. He’s still a bit of a mystery to Chicago fans, as he failed to score in a 10-game call-up last year. What kind of player and overall game can Hawk fans expect when Brouwer starts to skate a regular shift in Chicago? Can you compare him to a current or past NHL’er?
MH: I’d say he’s like a young Owen Nolan. Tough and physical, but he’s got to apply it. That said, he’s the best goal scorer we have. He just has a great shot and a great release. He’s gotten a little quicker, but he needs to keep working on that. He’s a lot like Barks. He needs to use that body and strength to create space for himself and his teammates, because when he does he’s special. If he floats around just trying to be a goal scorer, then he struggles a bit.
HF: He has some pretty good hands for a player his size.
MH: Oh, yes. People look at him and assume he’s just a north/south player and when they do that he’ll put a move on them they never saw coming. He’s very good laterally. He’s got great hands.
HF: Are there any sleepers you have right now — players who might not have had the press that some of the other ones have had who hockey fans should be aware of?
MH: Bryan Bickell is one player who I think some people underestimate. He can skate and really shoot the puck and he’s a big man. He needs to be more consistent though and we’re working on that. Another guy is Prestin Ryan who we got from Manitoba. He’s an older player, but he does all the things you want from a defenseman; he’ll make the first pass and join the rush. He’s got good feet, very good feet, and he really plays with an edge.
Rockford holds third place in the AHL West Division at 6-3-1.
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